by Ken Francis
(Based on Mark 12:38-44 and Psalm 146)
This Mark reading features two unconnected – or not obviously connected – incidents/teachings. Actually, the whole chapter seems to be an assembly of some of the things Jesus did and taught in the week just before his execution.
Although, given that I’m touched first of all by the pompous ways of the scribes (or ‘teachers of the law’ in some versions), especially in contrast to the meekness and humility of the widow, Mark may well have placed these two segments beside each other intentionally. So, we could unpack the attitudes of the scribes – part of the holy cabal of scribes, Pharisees and priests – and examine our own outward ways of being. Are we ‘scribal’ in any way, sisters and brothers?
And we could then unpack the widow’s attitude to giving, or, indeed, God’s attitude to widows and orphans, and anyone in states of vulnerability.
But I feel rather to pick up on something from the Psalm reading.
Do not put your trust in princes, it says, … in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them — he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed, and … [and various vulnerable folk are mentioned, including the widows, who, of course, in those days, had no official or often even social means of support].
God loves the vulnerable – and the righteous, the Psalm says – so, accepting that, don’t put your faith or your hopes in human beings! They’re not as good as they seem.
In coaching school rugby and soccer teams, we would often find ourselves on Saturday mornings, early, on foreign fields in miserable weather. As opposition teams began to turn up I could sometimes sense my players’ growing anxiety, seeing the size and perceived skills of the opposition, and I had to try to calm them down. I’d use various platitudes like “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” (which was little comfort to my players!), or … one that seemed to work better was, “they no different than you. They still get up each morning and put their trousers on one leg after the other”. The mental image and associated giggles did seem to lower their anxieties.
Just last week I was discussing vaccinations with my son (who’d been in some of my rugby teams as a teenager), and I was trying to ease the tensions of a controversial topic by saying, “Look, at the end of the day, if Ashley Bloomfield [NZ’s Director General of Health] says it’s safe, and the thing we need to do, then that’s good enough for me.”
To which Tom said, with a twinkle in his grin, “Dad, he’s no wiser than you or me … he still gets up each morning and puts his trousers on one leg after the other”.
Don’t put your trust in people, people! … is the message of some of these verses from Psalm 146.
What – you mean don’t trust anyone? Not my husband, my wife, my family, my friends, the Bishop, the All Blacks, the climate change delegates at COP26?
No, I don’t think the psalmist would go that far. Like me, he would still insure his car! He’d look to the Lord for safety on the roads, but he would still insure his car. He would still look to God for his general safety and well-being, but he would still lock his doors at night. He would trust God for his health, but he would still – would he still, maybe?, get vaccinated!
See what I mean? If our property is threatened, we would call the police – hopefully they’d come quickly – but still, primarily, trust in our God. And even if things turned out badly for us, our trust would still be in him … ultimately.
There are many incidents in the Old Testament where the Israelites didn’t have their hope in God, and it cost them. Times when they made alliances with pagan nations; when they went after other nations’ Gods; when they wanted a King, ‘like the other nations’ (we learn in 1 Samuel chapters 8-10); when they turned to Egypt because the Babylonians were threatening, but Egypt had more horses and chariots than they did (as in Jeremiah 42, for example).
Actually, that chapter is quite instructive: The enemy were at the gates of Jerusalem. The king didn’t know what to do, and his generals and political ‘friends’ were in rebellion. They were wanting to abandon the city, and seek refuge in Egypt. To force the issue, the rebels sought the advice of the prophet Jeremiah, swearing they’d adhere to whatever he counselled.
Jeremiah sought God, then counselled the rebels to stay in Jerusalem – they would be saved – but not to look to Egypt (where they would die if they went there). The rebels promptly ignored the advice and … it didn’t finish well for them.
So this tells us to seek God when we’re in trouble, and to do what seems right before him – not necessarily what human advice might tell us to do.
But, back to the question of whom among men and women can we trust, should we trust? When is it ok to trust in other people? The secret is, I suggest, we can trust the people we trust, as long as we can do it without compromising our primary submission to the higher one: God.
I put it to you that it’s fine to ask for help: when I take my car to the garage for repair, when I try to get a good deal on motel accommodation – as Jackie and I were doing this time last week, when I accept my government superannuation, when I ask Jackie to go downstairs and get me the hammer – no, perhaps I shouldn’t admit that here – or when I ask the bank to look after my funds … these are all ways I can trust in men and women without compromising in any way and, whilst still truly trusting God for my overall wellbeing.
But there are times when our hope needs to be in God alone. Men and women are fallible – they have no real power or comfort or ability to work miracles. The mechanic is not God; banks collapse; motels can still rip you off. Only God … He, who is our true backstop.
I love the attitude of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. To me these epitomise the attitude of the widow (in the Mark reading): they were told they must worship the local king, or they’d be thrown into a furnace. They replied (in Daniel 3), “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” [Emphasis added]
And you probably know how that panned out.
God forbid that we should ever have to face such a challenge, but let’s adopt their attitude in the face of any challenge. Do you have any challenges in mind this morning, facing you imminently? Then, be very clear about this: “God, whom we serve, is able …” The widow had her whole trust in God; the scribal cabal did not. Jesus highlighted the difference. And the psalmist says,
Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He remains faithful forever.